Floating Turbines on the High Seas

The world’s first wind farm employing floating turbines is taking shape 25 kilometers off the Scottish coast and expected to begin operating by the end of this year. Atmospheric scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science argue that the ultimate destination for such floating power farms could be hundreds of kilometers out in the open ocean. Their simulations, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that winds over the open ocean have far greater staying power than those over land.

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Electrification Finance Is Failing

For all of the excitement about using solar power to bring electricity to the more than 1 billion rural poor worldwide living without it, big picture trends provide a sobering reality check. In spite of innovative off-grid technology and business plans and high profile initiatives aiming to power remote villages in subsaharan Africa, for example, electrification there is still falling behind population growth. In 2009 there were 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without power, and five years later that figure had risen to 632 million, according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) statistics. A deep-dive analysis of capital flows, released today by the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All program, shows that off-grid systems simply are not getting the support they deserve. “This research shows that only 1 percent of financing for electrification is going into this very promising and dynamic energy solution,” says SEforALL CEO Rachel Kyte, who calls the findings “a wake up call” for the international community. Continue reading “Electrification Finance Is Failing”

Can U.S. Grids Handle 100% Renewables?

Four Days in 2055: Dynamic heat and power supply on the mid-century wind, water and sunlight-fuelled U.S. grid simulated by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson

A battle royale between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fuelled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, while both sides claim to be objectively weighing the energy options, the arguments and backgrounds of the protagonists belie well-informed affinities for various energy sources (and informed biases against others). As sociologists of science would say, their choice of data and their reading of it reflects hunches, values, and priorities.

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Bark Versus Bite on Trump and Clean Energy

President-elect Donald Trump is a self-declared climate-change denier who, on the campaign trail, criticized solar power as “very, very expensive” and said wind power was bad for the environment because it was “killing all the eagles.” He also vowed to eliminate federal action on climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s emissions reduction program for the power sector. Trump’s rhetoric has had renewable-energy stocks gyrating since the election. But the impact on renewable-energy businesses could be far less drastic than many worst-case scenarios. “At the end of the day what Trump says and what is actually implemented are two completely different things,” says Yuan-Sheng Yu, an energy analyst with Lux Research. Read on at MIT Technology Review

Can Reprogrammed Renewables Stabilize Grids?

As renewable power displaces more coal, gas, and nuclear generation, electricity grids are losing the conventional power plants whose rotating masses have traditionally helped smooth over glitches in grid voltage and frequency. One solution is to keep old generators spinning in sync with the grid, even as the steam and gas turbines that once drove them are mothballed. Another emerging option will get a hearing next week at the 15th International Workshop on Large-Scale Integration of Wind Power in Vienna: creating “synthetic inertia” by reprogramming wind and solar equipment to emulate the behavior of their fossil-fired predecessors.

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Solar Towers Not Avian Annihilators

Solar power towers have had a reputation as alleged avian vaporizers since preliminary reports of birds being burned in mid-air at California’s Ivanpah solar thermal plant. Their reputation was muddied even more during tests early this year at SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes power tower, whose intense beams of reflected light recently began generating power in Nevada. California public radio station KCET reported that as many as 150 birds were killed during one six-hour test in January. It is obviously upsetting to imagine birds ignited in the name of renewable energy. But avian mortality is a downside common to many modern human creations—including buildings, highways, and powerlines. Full data on bird mortality at Ivanpah, macabre as it might be, shows the death rate to be small and likely of little ecological significance. “The data does support a low level of avian mortalities and hopefully, through adaptive management and deterrence, it will go even lower,” says Magdalena Rodriguez, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Continue reading “Solar Towers Not Avian Annihilators”

First Place Finish for Outstanding Reporting on the Environment

SEJ-Awards-logo_1Time to toot my horn. The Society of Environmental Journalists has honoured my work in their 2015 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. I took first place in Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, for “History, Technology, Politics and Impact of Solar Power” — a series of articles published in MIT Technology Review and IEEE Spectrum magazines:

Can Japan Recapture Its Solar Power?
Topaz Turns On 9 Million Solar Panels
Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid
How Rooftop Solar Can Stabilize the GridContinue reading “First Place Finish for Outstanding Reporting on the Environment”